Le Gers: Sacred Places

When I wrote about le Chemin de St. Jacques that starts in Le Puy and works it way down France to Lectoure and west to Condom and Montreal, I was fascinated by a big detour.  As the Way goes west from Lectoure, it suddenly goes due north 8 kilometres to the  Collegial of La Romieu and then back down 8 kilometres and makes it way to Condom.  La Romieu had to be something very special to the pilgrims.  I learned it is classed as a World Humanity site by UNESCO.

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The Village itself was founded by two Benedictine monks on their return to Rome in 1062.  The word Romiau means Roman pilgrim.  Later, Cardinal Arnaud d’Aux wanted to build a Church that would be the tomb for his family.  Today, Le Romieu hosts a beautiful church, Sacristy with painted ceilings, Cloisters and a tower.  From the top, on a clear day, one can see the Pyrenees.

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What charmed me was the story of Angeline and her cats.  The short version is that during the middle ages, the people in the village were starving and took to eating cats and dogs.  The child, Angeline, hid her two cats.  When the time of starvation passed, the rats came.  Angeline’s cats killed the rats and saved the village.  We ate at a restaurant called Angeline’s.  Everywhere you walked, a stone cat or fascimile would be gazing into the distance.

 

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Driving up to Le Romieu, one sees two towers not one rising into the sky on either side of the Collegiale.  It is a magnificent skyline.  In July, a music festival and Fete is held on a long weekend called Festival Musique en Chemin.

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My ticket to Le Romieu gave me access to Les Jardins de Coursiana, a 900 meter walk from the village.  The Botanical gardens are actually four different gardens: an English garden, a medicinal garden, a huge vegetable garden (plenty of vegetables were on sale in the Boutique), and a PotagerIMG_1531.JPG Familial.

Entering a well loved garden has always given me a deep sense of peace, much more so than many churches and cathedrals that I have visited. These gardens were created in 1974 by Gilbert Cours -Darne, an eminent French botanist (he was awarded the Olivier de Serres prize, the highest distinction bestowed by the Academie d’Agriculture), the arboretum occupies 6 hectares and contains 700 different species of trees and shrubs. Situated by the road to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle with a view of the St Pierre de La Romieu collegiale, the Coursiana Gardens offer you a serene pause in a beautiful environment. Veronique and Arnaud Delannoy, the owners of the arboretum, as a result of their painstaking work, received the national Edouard d’Avdeew’s prize, awarded by the Association des Parcs Botaniques de France. In 2001, a partnership was established with Fleurance Nature to create a medicinal and aromatic plants garden, which opened in spring 2002. (most of this from TripAdvisor).

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The magnificent Oak

Some reviews say “Come in May”.  During the first two weeks in August, I saw: Wisteria shading lilac plants, large orange marigolds protecting long rows of tomatoes, green beans and aubergines.  Next to a lake with two swans and 3 ducks, rose an Oak tree that had been planted two hundred years ago.  It towered majestically over the rest of the many trees nearby.  It’s branches, in almost a perfect circle hung canopy-like over the bottom of a Japanese Fountain and waterfall.  Hanging to the sides of the lake were the largest Hibiscus plants I have ever seen.

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The brochure says it takes 1.5 hours to walk the gardens.  That’s a rush for me.  I wanted to sit on many of the wooden benches strategically placed for contemplation.  The gardens were very quiet.  Visitors seem to respect the deep spiritual sense of beauty that the gardens instil.

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A couple of days later, with only one day left in Le Gers, we visited L’Abbaye de Flaran.  It  is a former Cistercian abbey located in Valence-sur-Baïse, The abbey was founded in 1151, as a daughter house of Escaladieu Abbey, at the confluence of the Auloue and Baïse rivers, between the towns of Condom and Auch. The abbey was founded by Burgundian monks and today represents one of the best preserved abbeys in the south-west of France. (Wikipedia)

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After years of tumult, almost being sold off and ending up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the site was purchased by the department of Gers in 1972 and underwent an intense restoration project; it is now the site of numerous cultural activities. The site houses a permanent exhibition on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James.

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At the turn of the Century, Michael Simonow donated all his art collection to the Abbey.  They have been showing exhibitions every since.  The one we saw on the First floor looking over the Cloisters was called The English School.  It was a lovely exhibition but…it gave the Abbey a feel of a museum.  Downstairs is the permanent exhibition of Les Chemins de St. Jacques.  Entering that stone room with two stone sculptures of what Jacques must have looked like, I was immediately transported back to the spiritual feelings this being (me) almost automatically soaks up when near this Way.  A bit like being wrapped up in a light shawl.   I am so looking forward to starting on Le chemin next summer.  I don’t even care about getting to Spain.  Just being around it, so close to it for over a month, has given me a great feeling of longing to walk on the path that so many pilgrims have walked on. I even talked a fish market into giving me a half shell of a  Scallop to place in my small terrace garden.

To learn more about any of these places, go to…

https://www.brouquere.com/visit/collegiale-romieu_en.htm

www.jardinsdecoursiana.com

https://www.brouquere.com/visit/abbaye-de-flaran_en.htm

Why is the Scallop Shell symbolic of the Way of the Pilgrim?                                                                                   https://caminoways.com/the-scallop-shell-and-the-camino-de-santiago

A bientôt,

Sara

Les Chemins de St Jacques de Compostelle

When I was in my 20s and did most of my hiking (really backpacking as we always spent many nights out in our sleeping bags) in Vermont and the Northeast of the United States, I had a dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.  I hiked much of it in New England and now know that not all of the trail is fun.  It goes through cities and one has to hike on cement etc.

Then I moved out to California and my dream changed to doing the entire Pacific Coast Trail from Canada to Mexico.  It went through Yosemite and I did a lot of it there and south to Kings Canyon.

Then I moved to France.  Many of my friends were walking the Compostelle one week at a time, year after year.  I wasn’t exactly sure what it was but it sounded like fun and it was hiking. I talked a few friends into considering joining me next Spring or next Fall but no one agrees where to start or when to go and how much money to spend on a service that helps!  My friends Joy and Erica want to start in Portugal. My friends Jane and David have already done 13 days and walked only in Spain.  The French trails seem like the ugly step sister so I hadn’t paid much attention to where they are.  So imagine my surprise when I realised that I’m sitting right on top of the part of the ‘Chemin’ that comes down from Puy en Velay.

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The trail comes down to Lectoure then goes northeast to La Romieu (19km).   From there it goes to Condom (16km) then onto Montreal (20km) and from Montreal to Eauze (18km)

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The breathtaking collegial of La Romieu–halfway between Lectoure and Pouy-Roquelaure

History of the way of St. James:                                                                                                           BY

The Way of Saint James is known by many names – the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Via Podiensis, the Pilgrims’ Trail or, more simply, the GR 65. It is just one of many long-distance walking paths which arrive in France from all corners of Europe, converging eventually in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

For more than one thousand years, pilgrims gathered in this picturesque village (recently classified as one of France’s ‘most beautiful’) before heading out on a month-long journey across northern Spain to pay homage to the Apostle Saint James.

Perhaps the most famous – and most popular – of all long-distance walks is the Spanish Camino which stretches 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

Statistics vary greatly but between 100,000 and 200,000 walkers set out each year to complete all, or part, of this trail which, confusingly, is often referred to as the Camino Frances – a reference to its starting point in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénéan mountains of southern France.

Cloister in Le-Puy-en-Velay, GR65, France

Legend has it (and this is the version that I like best) that after the death of Jesus, the twelve disciples cast lots to divide up the known world and determine where each of them would spread the gospels. James travelled to Iberia (now known as Portugal and Spain) but, disappointed by what he perceived as a lack of success, returned to Jerusalem some years later, where he was promptly beheaded on the orders of King Herod.

Just past Villeret-d'Apchier, Way of Saint James, France

Shady path through the woods near Chamoux on Chemin de Vézelay
Shady path through the woods near Chamoux on Chemin de Vézelay (Photo by Melinda Lusmore, Ilovewalking)

And so the first pilgrimages began.  For the devout in France and northern Europe, a pilgrimage to Santiago was much more manageable than a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Over time, four main routes became established and today there are over 4,000 kilometres of paths, known collectively as the Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, which bring walkers from all over France to the southern town of Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port.  From here, they begin the 900 kilometre journey across the top of Spain to where the relics of Saint James are now housed in the much grander cathedral in nearby Santiago de Compostela.  Luckily for us walkers, a steady procession of pilgrims has resulted in a plentiful (in most cases) offering of accommodation and other infrastructure (OK, perhaps not a plentiful offering of toilets).  As you get closer to Santiago, competition for a cheap bed can be pretty stiff but in France you are less likely to find yourself stranded or having to walk on to the next town.  If you are walking a short section of the Pilgrims’ Trail, it is quite easy to pre-plan your stops and book your accommodation in advance.

Nowadays, people walk the Way of Saint James for a variety of reasons – sometimes for the physical challenge, sometimes as a walking meditation, often for religious reasons – and in a variety of ways – alone, in a guided group, with friends, in short stages or in one huge concentrated effort – but invariably they share a camaraderie that overcomes language barriers and other differences.

PS:  The four main routes in France are known by their starting points – Chemin du Puy-en-Velay (730 kilometres); Chemin d’Arles (805 kilometres); Chemin de Paris (940 kilometres) and Chemin de Vézelay (1,090 kilometres)

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Beginning of Chemin du Puy-en-Velay (730kilometres) photos by Melissa Lusmore I love Walking)

Thank you, Melissa Lusmore

Here in Pouy, there is a woman who is helping me out with care-taking of the pool.   When I told her of my interest in Le Chemin, she told me that she and her friends have walked it one week every summer for years.  They only have one week left to complete it.  She said she prefers the France paths to the Spanish paths.  I imagine that a lot of that is due to ease of finding gites to stay in at the last minute and fewer people on the trails.  The Spanish camino is the most popular and most crowded.  Starting in Portugal is also a way to begin with a lack of many people.

I bought a book and my theory is that if I read it enough, it will happen (Build it and they will come).

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Stick around and more will be revealed!!

A bientôt,

Sara